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Dealing With Anger and Insults

I published my October newsletter this afternoon, and I have already had eight people write to comment on it. When I write about how to edit or how to write faster, I may get eight comments over the entire month! That’s why I know the topic "Dealing With Anger and Insults" has touched a nerve.

Of course, I want you to subscribe to my free newsletter, Better Writing at Work, so I won’t  share the entire main article, but here is the gist:

We have often been told not to write to respond to angry or argumentative messages. Instead, the advice goes, we should pick up the phone or meet in person to resolve our differences. But sometimes a phone or face-to-face contact does not make sense, especially if the other person is intimidating or manipulative.

Here are 12 suggestions on how to respond to angry or insulting messages. For details, subscribe to my free monthly e-newsletter. If you do, I promise that I will not hound you, phone you, or even email you more than once a month!


1. At first, do nothing. Do not respond until you have calmed down.

2. If other people were copied on the angry message, send a brief note as a Reply to All, like this:

Ronald, I received your message. I will send you an individual, private response and then follow up with others as needed.

3. Get support from a trusted colleague or friend, but do not broadcast the contents of the offensive message.

4. If the message is abusive, get help from your manager, another trusted manager, or someone from the human resource (personnel) department.

5. Decide whether you need to respond. Sometimes the mature response is not to respond.

6. Before responding, consider the possibility that you are overreacting or misinterpreting the message and the intent. Perhaps the writer meant to type "incomplete" rather than "incompetent."  Is that possible?

7. Try to find any truth in the message. For example, is it possible that you did embarrass the writer at this morning’s meeting? If you acknowledge the truth, you may be able to ignore the hurtful language.

8. Write a long, therapeutic message to yourself. In it, say everything you would like to say to the other person, but don’t mail it. Just get out your angry feelings so you can deal constructively with the other person.

9. Do not accept the other person’s remarks as facts, especially if they accuse other people or cite the comments of others.

10. When you respond, keep value judgments, emotional language, and unsupported remarks out of your message. State only the facts. If you can avoid putting down the other person, you can avoid becoming embroiled in a conflict.

11. Keep your response short. Avoid giving so much detail that the other person has plenty to misinterpret or refute.

12. Before you send it, have one or two friends review your response to be sure it is free of sarcasm, emotional language, and unsubstantiated remarks.

How would you respond to this message if you received it from your manager?

You missed an obvious typo in the brochure. OUR PHONE NUMBER IS WRONG, for God’s sake. Every damn one will need to be reprinted. Don’t you dare come to me about an end-of-year bonus! This mistake makes me sick. What the hell were you doing when you were supposed to be proofreading?

Think about how you might respond, applying the tips above. Later this week I will publish an example of a careful, professional response.

I hope you are having a week free of anger and insults!


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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